A patient recently came in because – even though it was midwinter and her legs hadn’t seen sunlight for months – a mole on her left calf seemed to be changing, getting darker, maybe larger, too. She knew these changes were a warning sign for skin cancer.
I’m always happy when a patient takes a proactive stance like this. And I’m relieved that we’re all becoming more educated about and aware of how skin changes – particularly in moles – can be a signal to pay attention and see your doctor. Such changes, even subtle ones, can be a precursor to skin cancer.
There are several types of skin cancer and precancerous conditions ranging from actinic keratoses to basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.
Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer. While far rarer than SCC and BCC, approximately 150,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed each year, and more than 45,000 melanoma-related deaths occur annually, according to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) report. Prevention is key; however, early detection is also very important – especially when it relates to melanoma.
That’s why it pays to know your ABCDEs of melanoma. The first 5 letters of our alphabet offer critical clues for things you need to know about moles and skin health – clues that just might save your own or another’s life:
Asymmetry. Watch for asymmetrical moles. Melanoma lesions typically present as an irregularly shaped mole. Noncancerous moles are usually round and contained.
Border. Melanoma lesions often have jagged or irregular edges. Harmless moles typically have defined, smooth borders.
Color. Benign moles typically appear as some variation of brown. Cancerous lesions often have many shades of brown or black or even red, blue, or white.
Diameter. Pay attention to moles that are larger than the average pencil eraser, or 1/4”. Benign moles are usually smaller than that; melanoma lesions are often larger.
Evolving. See a dermatologist if a mole changes size, color, or shape.
Regularly perform a skin inventory, monthly, if possible, or at least every 3 months, and enlist the aid of a family member or loved one to observe areas you can’t see, like your back (or use mirrors in a well-lit room to view otherwise hidden areas). Then keep your ABCDEs in mind every time you scan your skin.
Thanks to my patient’s knowledge of what to look for, she got prompt treatment – a biopsy and excision of a precancerous lesion, and at an early stage. Had she been unaware of what to watch for, she would have put herself at increasing risk every day she ignored it. Your skin cancer ABCDEs represent the kind of knowledge that could save your life!
Additional information on skin cancer:
Skin Cancer Foundation